Holy Living column with Rev Peter Dodson
In and around Ripon, the Christmas Midnight Mass will be enjoyed by large numbers of Christian people.
The atmosphere will be a glorious celebration of the birth of the infant Jesus. It will also be a time to remember the life, work, last meal, crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation of the adult Jesus.
Throughout the world, the Midnight Mass, like all Eucharistic worship, will not be nostalgic sentimentality.
It will be a profound awareness that the wisdom, love and power of the Messiah or Christ, is present now, as in every past and future moment, until the whole universe is made eternally complete in him.
This will inevitably happen however many of the world’s people continue to ignore, reject or even attempt to destroy the sacrificial love he represents. The process towards this is both very painful and exuberantly joyful.
Ripon’s Midnight Masses will include an ardent desire for all our City’s residents to know the glorious presence of Jesus Christ in their minds, hearts and lives.
The Midnight Mass often begins with the congregation singing a well-known hymn: “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant...” During the hymn, the choir and clergy enter, the president carrying a figure of the infant Christ.
When the procession reaches the crib, the Christ figure is placed in the manger.
The following words are then spoken: “Dear friends, as we meet to celebrate the birth of Christ, let us pray that God will fill our hearts with [sacrificial] love, so that we and all who worship his Son ... may come to share his life in glory.
We pray you, Lord, to purify our hearts, that they may be worthy to become your [holy] dwelling place... Come and live in us that we also may live in you...”
Throughout this year, my monthly Gazette columns have consistently focused on metaphors for Jesus Christ who, for devoted Christians, is Light of the World, Word [or Self-expression] of God, Bread of Life, Living Water, True Vine and Good Shepherd.
This December’s Midnight Mass will emphasise all of these, using the visible signs of candles, holy books, bread, water and wine.
The priest or minister will represent, as he or she is called to do, the pastoral ministry of Christ the Good Shepherd. This ministry is the responsibility of both ordained and lay worshippers.
All are called to do this, not for their own sake, but for God’s sake and for the sake of the world and all creation. This is also God’s calling for every human being.
Countless Christmas sermons have been, and continue to be, preached both insides and outside church buildings. Those sermons struggle to describe the meaning of God’s incarnation in Jesus. Throughout religious history, there has been an idea that God or gods have presented themselves to the world in human form.
Christianity, however, has developed and refined this, often controversial, concept of incarnation. At Christmastide especially, the infant and adult Jesus is seen as the ultimate encounter between God and humankind. The New Testament reflects the experience and culture of its time, variously recognising the divine status of Jesus. This is especially true of the writings of Saint John and Saint Paul.
In their writings, the Good News of the Incarnation has gradually enabled authentic Christianity to overcome arguments that have divided West from East, as well as Catholic from Protestant.
Recent theological discussions about the divine status of Jesus have emphasised the metaphorical, rather than literal, truth of religious language. As I write, my bookshelves reveal a volume entitled “The Metaphor of God Incarnate”.
My own Gazette columns have frequently emphasised that all religious language is utterly inadequate to “pigeon-hole” God.
Many respected twentieth century theologians saw “the centrality and truth of the doctrine of the Incarnation” as a metaphorical “expression of the religious significance [for Christians] of Jesus as the human vehicle of the saving knowledge of God.”
Treating the Incarnation as literal truth creates unnecessary barriers with the world’s other religious faiths.
The Church needs to recognise that it lives in a world of many channels of divine/human encounter.
Authentic and thoughtful Christianity is bound to see itself, together with all true seekers after God, as inclusive rather than exclusive.
This in no way undermines the Good News of the Incarnation. That glorious metaphor indicates that, in the religious experience of all humankind, the spirit of Christ is universally in evidence, wherever sacrificial, creative and loving work is being done.